(CNN) — Known for its iconic, ancient architecture atop dusty hilltops, the Greek capital of Athens is not usually associated with green, open space. But this may soon change, as the city’s former international airport and surrounding waterfront are about to be transformed into a giant seaside park bigger than London’s Hyde Park.
Once a bustling gateway to Greece, the grounds of Ellinikon International Airport have been empty for nearly two decades. After being dismantled in 2001, the building was left abandoned, except for a brief stint during the 2004 Summer Olympics when it hosted a softball field, hockey field, and fencing venue. Today rust-colored weeds, dried out by the sun, protrude from old stands, in a sad reversal from its glory days.
Early next year, developers will break ground on the Ellinikon Metropolitan Park, a 600-hectare restorative landscape that will revitalize the area and hopes to serve Athenians as a park, playground and cultural center, while also enhancing the climate resilience of the city.
Ellinikon International Airport was originally built in 1938, but closed in 2001 and the site has been largely empty ever since.
“This is a generational and transformational project for Greece,” said Michael Grove, landscape architect for Sasaki, the Boston-based firm responsible for the project’s design. Athenians were “frustrated that for 20 years this was an empty piece of important public land,” he added. Sasaki is known for his landscape architecture and urban design, responsible for New York’s Greenacre Park, Charleston Waterfront Park, and Beijing Olympic Green in 2008.
Eye for the past
Part of the site’s history will be preserved in its new form. The 1960s terminal hall, designed by renowned Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, remains, as do the huge light poles on the runway. More than 300,000 square feet of concrete and asphalt from former runways will be repurposed into benches and pavement and other uses.
The old terminal building, designed by Eero Saarinen, will be retained in the new building.
This “upcycling” approach helps bolster the park’s environmental credentials, Grove said: “We’re using what we have on site through all this beautiful concrete — these 30-inch-thick concrete slabs with marble aggregate the size of golf balls.” He added that they will also try to minimize carbon emissions once the park opens, using an all-electric maintenance park and organic fertilizers and pesticides.
Only Greek species will be planted throughout the park grounds, including 31,000 trees of 86 species and more than 3 million plants. Designers worked with Greek nurseries to find native seed mixes that would provide ecological benefits while also thriving in the region’s increasingly arid climate.
Temperatures are exacerbated by the urban heat island effect as the city’s concrete, brick and asphalt absorb and trap heat, explained Eleni Myrivilli, chief heat officer for the city of Athens and senior climate resilience advisor at the Arsht-Rock Resilience Center of the Atlantic Council. “Athens is very densely built up and all the different surfaces are totally unsuitable for rising heat,” she said, adding that they don’t absorb water and so could lead to flooding during increasingly frequent cloudbursts.
Green can help to counteract these effects. “We’re essentially flipping a site that was 80% hardscape… to 80% softscape,” Grove said, and replacing concrete or stone with trees and shrubs helps absorb rainfall and create shade, which has a cooling effect.
To combat water scarcity, the park will be irrigated with treated wastewater supplied by a nearby factory, and a 3.7-hectare lake – repurposed from the former Olympic canoe and kayak area – will collect and store rainwater.
The park was designed to serve both nature and people, with a recreational lake (shown here in a rendering) that also provides irrigation.
Such design features are crucial for a climate-resilient future, says Aleksandra Kazmierczak, climate change and health expert for the European Environment Agency (EEA). “Green spaces are one of the really effective ways to lower temperatures in cities,” she said. “If cities are designed more like sponges that can soak up excess water, that could translate into economic benefits if they don’t get flooded and lose millions and billions of dollars in damage.”
Another big benefit of green spaces is the effect they can have on “physical health, mental health and social cohesion,” Kazmierczak said. People who live in greener environments tend to be less stressed and less obese, and green space can reduce noise levels and air pollution, which may have long-term health benefits, she added.
“For the mental and physical health of the Athenians, it will be a place of rest… and to restore balance to life in a very densely populated city,” she said, adding that it will be especially important for those who are less be prosperous. and cannot afford to leave the city during the hot summers.
The development includes an elongated beach on the Mediterranean Sea, shown here in an artist’s impression.
The Ellinikon will have something for everyone, Grove said. There will be sculpture parks, sports centres, open-air theatres, food and beverage outlets and a public beach. With 50 kilometers of hiking trails and 30 kilometers of cycling paths, he wants Athenians to actively explore the area and engage with nature.
The project took a long time. The idea of turning the space into a park was born before the airport was even dismantled, but funding issues, the 2008 economic crisis and disagreements over who would develop it delayed the project time and time again. In 2021, Greek real estate company Lamda Development was formally awarded the contract, bringing in Sasaki and other architects for the design. Lamda estimates the project will cost approximately $8 billion, including the residential and commercial developments surrounding the park.
Now that the momentum is finally here, the architects are determined to move quickly. The first phase of the park — about 250 acres including the central Olympic Square, the city’s streetcar line and the entire coastal front — will be completed in late 2025 or early 2026, Grove said.
He envisions Ellinikon becoming Athens’ equivalent of New York’s Central Park – a place that could change the way Athenians use public space, contribute to the city’s public and environmental health, and stand the test of time . “Looking at the history of Athens, we expect this park, in one form or another, to exist for 1,000 years,” he said.